Zak Pelaccio

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Fatty Crab (New York); Fish & Game (Hudson, NY)

Education: French Culinary Institute

Got his start: As a stagiere at Daniel in 1996.

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
An old French guy named Claude, an expat who worked in the French kitchen at the Westin Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I never got to know him well enough to learn his last name. I worked in the Thai kitchen but couldn’t speak Thai, so every now and then I’d talk to him.

I can’t say he taught me how to cook, but he taught me to cook neat, very slowly and listen to my food when I cook.

He also taught me not to accept the tools that are available, not to accept the environment you’re given, but to manipulate it to make it work for you. For example, he taught me how to make duck confit. He used to keep the oven door slightly ajar because the ovens wouldn’t go low enough for him. This was before sous vide or combi ovens were popular—or even on the market.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I have no idea. I cooked and played with so many things when I was young, there wasn’t this one initial dish was an epiphany. My mother used to make a frittata from leftover spaghetti. I loved to make it myself. I called it spaghetti pie: eggs and bacon and Parmigiano and leftover pasta. I was always challenging myself to know when to flip it—when it was cooked enough on the bottom, and not totally cooked on top, so it wouldn’t spill all over the place. It was a fun game. I took pride in when I really nailed it. As for a new cook, it all depends on what you like! That’s the whole point! It's not for me to say. It’s for you to find out.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I don’t have a single absolute go-to, though I do have many that I like. Right now I’m reading a series of essays on wild food from the Oxford Symposium on Food.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
It depends on the restaurant. For Fatty, I would say the fatty duck dish: Duck that’s first brined, then slowly steamed over aromatics like ginger and garlic and green onion tops, and herb stems. You put it on a bed of those things in a perforated pan, a mess of different aromatics, then steam it until it’s cooked through, then chill it and fry it. We served it with rice and cured mustard greens and fresh chiles. So there it’s about strong, intense flavors. A lot of the work is in the preparation, building these deep layers of flavor: making brines and pastes, letting things marinate over night, blending spices. Every dish is often several days in the making.

At Fish & Game, right now we’re still establishing our style. We’ve been changing the menu every week, then evolving it throughout the week. It’s simple but flavorful items. The flavors are not too muddied, they’re very clean. And we’re embracing the Hudson Valley. So for instance last week we did young baby turnips poached in butter with brioche and honey and black pepper and nepitella, which is an herb between oregano and mint. It’s got that light fuzzy texture of oregano, but a deeper, almost spicier quality to it than your standard mint. Then our friend caught a tuna, so we had some tuna belly charred on the wood-burning grill with snap peas and fish sauce and wild mint from the property. There’s one dish we’ve enjoyed running more often: Duck cooked on a rotisserie in the dining room, then glazed with maple syrup from our farm, then served with poached rhubarb. I do like duck. Compared to Fatty, here it’s about just highlighting the cooking technique. Cooking with wood, using exemplary products, using what’s coming from our property. The maple sap we pulled off the trees in March, the rhubarb that came up in May. We’re combining ingredients from our world, and not going outside of it to find something. We’re giving ourselves stricter parameters.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pastry. I’m slowly building more of a vocabulary. We have to process ingredients very quickly up here. Like we just had a bunch of chamomile flowers last week, so I cryovaced them in some local milk, and then we made a chamomile fior di latte gelato. It was wonderful, but I can do that more easily on the savory end. On the pastry end, manipulating them into something I’m interested in eating is more of a challenge that I’ve presented myself with.

What is your current food obsession?
All food. I’m just in awe. The condiments that we’ve been developing, the fish sauce that we make at home is so delicious. My wife and partner Jori [Jayne Emde] has been making these amazing vinegars recently that have been so good. Finding new local ingredients, too, like wild strawberry leaves, raspberry leaves, barley leaves—things that are not as obvious to most consumers, but that add value up here, where we’re trying to use all of it.

What is the best bang for the buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I’d say pickling turnip and beet stems, even nasturtium stems. We have these nasturtium stems that we grow and our friends grow. We use the leaves and flowers in salads and dishes. The edible stems are so tasty. We just marinate them in soy sauce for a few days, sometimes with a little xiao xing rice wine. Then we drain it out and then cut the soy with a little water so it doesn’t become too intense. We serve that with raw fish. It’s really tasty and doesn’t cost us much. But it’s a lot of labor. A lot of things that are inexpensive require a lot of labor to make them something special.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Jori’s house vinegars and her kimchi water, and our fish sauce that we age on our farm. We use local fish, salt them, dry them, pour water over them and keep them in the spent bourbon barrels from a couple of local distilleries. We let it sit for about a year, and then we strain it.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
About the only thing we use from a jar these days is alfalfa honey from a beekeeper up here named Lloyd Spear. It’s got that distinct smell of alfalfa flowers. Most recently we used it on a turnip dish. We get little Hakurei turnips from a farm here. We peeled them and poached them in butter until just tender, and then warmed them with a little bit of butter and salt. Our baker Walter, who’s been making wonderful bread in our wood-burning oven, baked some brioche loaves. So we cubed that, and toasted them in some of our aged butter to make square little golden-brown croutons, about one inch by one inch. Then we served the warm poached turnips with the toasted brioche cubes, some nepitella from our fields, and the flowers, the black pepper and a drizzle of the honey.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Right now it’s a pinot noir from Domaine de L’Octavin called Don Giovanni. It’s phenomenal. Occasionally it can be slightly carbonic. It’s just bright and alive and you can drink it for breakfast. You feel healthy drinking it.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I love reading old texts and learning about the way things were done in ancient times, so maybe it would be Apicius. I would take him to some sort of outdoor lamb roast in a vineyard. It could be pretty much anywhere, preferably in some mountainous region, by an open fire, where we could stare at meat, and drink wine, and sit there smelling the meat as it roasts in the open fire. It would probably be the early fall when it’s a little bit crisp and you don’t have to put the wine on ice. As the sun goes down you can warm your hands by the fire. You’re cooking the potatoes underneath the meat, and let the drippings from the lamb drip on the potatoes, and really just enjoying life and having good conversation and getting into it.

First I would like to ask him exactly how he would make his fish sauce, or the concentrated liquamen, because I have an obsession with that. Jori just taught me how they began making soy sauce as an inexpensive alternative to fish sauce. You just can’t get the same flavors out of soy sauce. I’d also be very interested in the use of spices, because at that time, spices were so heavily employed, often to mask off-flavors in meat, but there was such a focus on the blending of spices. The trade was so intensive during the Roman Empire. Understanding how they were used, getting some greater understanding into the flavors they enjoyed, that would be fascinating. It’s all about flavor, right? Flavor and living well.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Recently Jori and I brought back these incredible Thai bronze butter dishes that we’re using at Fish & Game. We serve our butter in them. They’re each a cylinder about two inches in diameter and about two inches in height. There’s another cylinder, a sheath that closes over it. Each half is made out of a solid piece of bronze. They’ve got such a weight to them. Even though what we do is not at all Southeast Asian, and you wouldn’t even know they’re from Southeast Asia, I do, and that’s cool.